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Irene Onyeneho: Disrupting Cancer Detection

March 24, 2017

“As tech remakes the world, women will miss the chance to affect the massive economic and social changes this fourth industrial revolution will bring.”       

– Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube


Have you ever read a quote that changed your life? For me, this was it. I instantly felt the urge to pack up and move to San Francisco. I was working at a VC firm in Tel Aviv at the time and I realized tech isn’t just another industry – it’s our next economy – and I had to be a part of it.


Since moving to San Francisco, I have come to know the most inspiring people through intense networking (think meetups, soccer, Tea With Strangers, happy hours, etc.). At one point, a close friend remarked, “I don’t know how you have the energy to meet so many strangers.” As an introvert, I’m just as surprised but that’s the thing about San Francisco – the more people you meet the more you want to continue. There are an endless number of interesting minds and stories in these 49 square miles.


One day I thought, I’m meeting with all of these people, might as well document their stories… and I happened to meet Irene Onyeneho that night. The only thing more impressive than her accomplishments was her kindness. She was so supportive of the idea and if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if or when I would have had the courage to start this project.


Why The Forefront?

It seems we only talk about gender equality in tech when yet another sexual harassment case is reported. This discourse is extremely important but it shouldn’t be the only narrative. The Forefront is meant to shed light on the contributions and ambitions of women in tech, which will hopefully inspire more to join them in our fourth industrial revolution.


Thanks for reading,



1. What is your startup?


My startup idea is in the cancer diagnostic space. In cancer diagnostics, there are two main ways to determine if someone has cancer or not. One is to get a tissue biopsy – so remove a tumor – and that typically involves an invasive surgery and oftentimes a tumor is in a location that’s difficult to access (kidney, pancreas, etc.) or maybe it’s too small to show up on a CAT scan.


Now there’s an emerging field called liquid biopsies where you take a needle and draw blood in order to detect biomarkers like circulating tumor cells or circulating tumor DNA and you can sequence that DNA to figure out A) what sort of cancer it is and B) where the mutation might be. It’s really powerful.


However, there is research that shows that some of the same indicators of cancer that’s found in blood can also be found in other more readily accessible biofluids. If we can use these biofluids, we wouldn’t have to go to a doctor – we can potentially do these tests from home. I want to make a way that people who otherwise feel healthy can regularly check for cancer or even other diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s by simply taking an at home test.



2. It seems like healthcare and tech are in opposition in terms of timelines and measurements of success. As a budding entrepreneur with a science background, how do you marry entrepreneurship and science?


That’s so true and I think that’s why healthcare is so difficult to disrupt because the timelines are so different. You can develop a drug or a diagnostic but you need to do a lot of careful testing so that takes time and then you also need to test on human subjects (clinical trials) and that could take a series of years. I think the current estimate for a new cancer drug would be about 10 years from conception to actually putting it on the market – which is a lot longer than normal tech.


I want [my product] to be applied to humans as quickly as possible and the nice thing about it is that it’s not a drug, it’s just a diagnostic. I anticipate the clinical trial length for this product would be significantly shorter than a normal drug trial. The technology necessary to bring this to bear will also decrease that time to market and the turnaround time for patients to obtain their results. With current method, samples typically take weeks to test, process, and analyze. With this method, results should be ready overnight. 


Also, accuracy is very important for me.  I’ll essentially be reproducing work from previous papers that have suggested that something like this can be done.  Coming from a scientific background, I value accurate and consistent results and unless that’s clearly evident, then we’ll know whether this approach will work or not.


Another big part of this will be design.  User experience principles aren’t placed on as high a premium in healthcare as it is in other areas of technology. How can we make something as important as taking care of our health and checking for diseases like cancer be something that is as seamless and user friendly as other routine personal health tasks like brushing our teeth or washing our hands?

“I’m really glad you’re doing this project because I imagine that many women probably feel invisible in tech in this day and age, and even worse when reports come out about women being treated unfairly. So many women are doing really interesting and important things on their own and in the workplace, and it’s important to get their stories out there.”

– Irene Onyeneho

3. What made you decide to pursue this idea?


I was reading the scientific literature and saw that this was possible.  I saw how impactful it could be for human health and wellbeing. I thought I could either wait for somebody else to do this or do it myself.  So right now I’m currently researching and getting feedback on this idea.  At the same time, I’m exploring other career opportunities as well. 



4. What motivates you?


What motivates me is the hope for a brighter future in healthcare. I had an internship right after I was finished at Stanford where I worked on a project that required a lot of research on the healthcare system of the United States. I had no idea the level of complexity that was involved with things like insurance reimbursements, FDA regulations, and medical billing.


Almost every node you can think of in the healthcare system is unnecessarily complicated and isn’t really helping the patient.  I want to create an easy non-complicated way to really monitor your health and to eliminate as many complexities internal and external to that as possible. 


For this test, I want it to be affordable for everyone. And not only for Americans of any income level but also for people in third-world countries. Imagine if you were able to just take a small biosample to detect if somebody had a particular disease – that’s really powerful. So basically what really motivates me is efficiency and being able to solve really difficult problems that help people in the end.


For inquiries, please email shadiariellafarahi@gmail.com


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